Woollahra Public School: A Microcosm of Australia’s Journey from Colony to Independence and Confidence
by Jaqui Lane
Woollahra Public School, one of the oldest public schools in Sydney, opened in 1878 after several residents from the relatively new Woollahra Council area had applied to the Colonial Government for its establishment two years earlier. Shortly after this application the government resumed one acre of land from Sir Daniel Cooper, who owned 1320 acres in Woollahra.
The first building was designed by Benjamin Backhouse, a well-known architect who had arrived in Australia from England in the 1850s and worked in Victoria and Queensland before moving to New South Wales and establishing a large architectural practice.
Backhouse was a proponent of the Gothic style, and his Woollahra Public School building is the only known major essay in high Victorian Greek revival on a school in New South Wales. The original building comprises a single-storey hall with hammerbeam roof and ‘interesting’ Greek revival belltower with frontispiece. It was built by W Leggo at a cost of 3325 pounds.
In 1879 there were 255 pupils on the roll. The first headmaster was Mr S Burnett and Miss M Thornton was the mistress of the infants department.
Public, Secular Education
In 1880 Henry Parkes introduced the NSW Public Instruction Act. The Act had its roots in the democratic liberal philosophies espoused by progressives in Britain and the colony. The traditional view that education should impart religious and moral beliefs was being challenged by liberal views of education that favoured the acquisition of knowledge, useful skills and desirable social characteristics. Together, democracy and liberalism became a force for the separation of State and Church and for secularism in education in the colony. Between 1880 and 1883 enrolment in NSW government schools increased by 60 per cent.
In 1880 William Edmund Kemp was appointed Chief Architect in the Department of Public Instruction. Interestingly Kemp often disagreed with prominent local architects such as Benjamin Backhouse who favoured the Gothic–Greek revival style, of which Woollahra Public School was a unique example. Australian architects had been following the British controversy surrounding the ‘Battle of the Styles’. This earlier debate questioned the appropriateness of the Gothic style for large secular buildings, arguing both its inability to satisfy practical requirements of cost, light, ventilation and function, and its failure to represent mid-19th-century values of identity and place.
Sketch of the Benjamin Backhouse building, built in 1877.
As Chief Architect for public schools, Kemp immediately dispensed with the Gothic style. Focused on utility, he devised his own architectural style for school buildings that addressed issues of function (free, compulsory and secular elementary education), climate, materials (brick) and financial constraints. This said, he was keenly aware that his schools should also express their purpose as symbols of colonial progress and civilisation.
Kemp’s schools demonstrated an independent architectural assessment of the needs of New South Wales and also resonated with the emerging sentiments of national identity, which recognised a new type of person and a new type of society that would provide the foundation for a new nation.
William Edmund Kemp, Chief Architect in the Department of Public Instruction.
While debates about architectural style continued, Woollahra Public School continued to grow. In 1884 more accommodation was required so a wooden building was erected. Three years later a new infants classroom was added and in 1891 a girls school was added, as were more additions to the infants department. By the early 1890s it was clear this hodgepodge of buildings, from Gothic to timber, was not functional. Kemp and his colleague, James Sven Wigram (who later became the Government Architect for Public Schools), could finally design something more modern, functional and frugal.
In 1899 a new brick building for the boys department was commenced. Completed in 1901, it was named the Barton Building in honour of Sir Edmund Barton, who became the first Prime Minister of Australia at a public ceremony at nearby Centennial Park on 1 January 1901. Enrolment at this time numbered 1200. As the children became older and the school catered for seniors, its name was changed to Woollahra Superior Public School. In 1902 a new wing was added to the boys school.
Changing Needs and Name
Since the 1930s Woollahra Public School has been one of the few Sydney schools to have Opportunity Classes (OC).
In 1961, due to its contribution to teacher education, the school’s name was changed to Woollahra Demonstration School.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s the needs of the community were changing, and Woollahra School was at the forefront. There was a growing demand for after-school care and the local Holdsworth Street Supervised Playground and amenities had to be upgraded to meet this need. Local resident Anthony Vincent led a community push to extend the Moncur Reserve and upgrade the playground. In 1974 Penny Vincent became a founding member of the committee that overhauled the delivery of after-school care at Holdsworth Street. Separately Gillian Fisher (President of the Infants Mothers Club of Woollahra Demonstration School) and Helen Young pressed the need for better facilities, which were opened in 1976.
In 1978, Woollahra Demonstration School celebrated its centenary. A time capsule was buried in the grounds and a mural was painted on the old School Hall, featuring Central Australia’s Olga mountains (Kata Tjuta). The name of the school was changed back to Woollahra Public School in 1979 when the teaching college attached to the school moved to Oatley.
Still at the forefront of societal change and community expectations, the school ‘went solar’ in recent years, installing a 40kW solar power system.
Some 140 years after its foundation, Woollahra Public School and its architecture remain an important story in the fabric of the Woollahra community.
With thanks to Barbara Swebeck, Local History Officer, Woollahra Libraries.
Empire, Education and Nationalism. The School Architecture of William Edmund Kemp, 1880–1896, Kirsten Orr, Fabrications: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand 20, no. 2 (December 2011): pp .60-85. ISSN 1033-1867.
Holdsworth Street Supervised Playground and Community Centre History, 1939–1982, Jane Britten, 2020,